The Neapolitan Reviews Pack: New Darkthrone, Gloryhammer, and Aephanemer!

Days and weeks flying by, and just when I think I’m caught up, I realize I’m still behind the ever marching release calendar. This time around, in the ever challenging effort to keep up to date, I ran into some road blocks. One was the tragic passing of Andre Matos, which really derailed me for awhile. After a couple days where I couldn’t even bear the thought of listening to his voice because I was feeling pretty down about it to say the least, I took a few days to go on an Angra and Viper binge. That was therapeutic and insightful because I ended up reexamining the entire Angra catalog, even some of the later era Edu albums that I’d previously shrugged off. Anyway to business: Three releases are reviewed below, two from major bands that deserve a longer discourse than the one paragraph reviews I was dishing out on the last update —- and a band that’s new to me that has taken over my listening time in a major way. I’ve been gushing about them to anyone within earshot, and on the newest MSRcast as well, so its only fitting that I write a bit about it here. Also working on the premiere of a major feature I’m hopefully rolling out soon, and maybe some other non-reviews oriented fun stuff as well. Thanks for reading!


Darkthrone – Old Star:

The legendary status of a band like Darkthrone is never in question. They’ve been around for ages, and almost any metal fan acquainted with more underground music or just black metal in general knows their name and maybe even an album or two. Sometimes though, I wonder if our justifiably warm, and dare I say fuzzy feelings towards Fenriz and Nocturno Culto as anti-spotlight, fellow working class metalheads colors our feelings towards their recent releases. Don’t get me wrong, I hold the band in high esteem, but sometimes they release albums that just feel like stuff I’ve heard before, that was more exciting the first time I heard it. I read other people pouring out opulent praise for their new album on Twitter and elsewhere and begin to wonder what I’m missing. Or have they transcended into that place in the underground metal pantheon where every new release is just automatically lavished with gushing adoration and critical plaudits? Ihsahn once remarked in an interview something to the effect of what he would hate about recording new Emperor albums, namely, that they’d be automatically granted a critical respect and stature just because of the storied history behind the name on the album art.

One day after Old Star was released, I saw a few folks on Twitter labeling it their favorite album of the year so far. Is that really the take we’re going with a day after its release? Seems a little hyperbolic and oh also have you not listened to anything else this year? The joke enjoyed at my expense before this album was released was mentioning to a friend of mine how it had been a long time since the last Darkthrone album, thinking it was 2013’s genuinely exciting The Underground Resistance, completely forgetting 2016’s well… forgettable Arctic Thunder and its half-hearted plunge back into icy, black metal-ish waters. The sad thing is that three years from now when Darkthrone releases their next album (I’m just assuming they will), I’ll likely still look back on The Underground Resistance as my most recent lodestone bearing the memories of what I can so joyfully love about this band. I don’t think Old Star is a bad album, but its riff first stance has these songs struggling to find any purchase in terms of memorability. Fenriz remarked in the album’s press release that it was the most 80s sounding record they’d ever done, and maybe to him it is because he’s associating it with specific riff influences that will go over most of our heads. I mention that because the seemingly scattered assortment and placement of differing riffs in aggression, attitude, and even stylistic approach seems utterly random and forced in songs like “I Muffle Your Inner Choir”. They certainly achieved what the title preaches —- can I get a vocal melody here guys, or a hook of any kind?

Don’t look at me like that. Yes I said vocal melody and hooks in a Darkthrone review. The band at their best in their recent decade long span has delivered both in spades —- songs like “Too Old, Too Cold”, “Circle The Wagons”, “I Am the Working Class”, “Valkyrie”, “Leave No Cross Unturned”… you get the idea. All songs with pronounced hooks, mostly in the vocal department via catchy phrasing. Here on the new album, vocal patterning seems to be hardly an afterthought, the riffs being the central music motif we’re supposed to latch onto. That’s near impossible for me on a dud like “Alp Man”, which is as boring a Darkthrone song as I can recall. I wasn’t thrilled with the title track either, which never seemed to materialize any sort of internal logic or direction. There’s a nagging question underpinning this album’s scant six songs —- why are all of these so freaking lengthy? The shortest was 4:28 but should’ve been half that, and the rest easily eclipse 5 and 6 minutes in length. There’s no musical reason for them to so do, no grand buildup to a major bridge in the middle of them, nor any kind of natural Blind Guardian-esque need to embellish and beautify (this is ugly old Darkthrone we’re talking about after all). The length alone made repeat listening to this album for review purposes a chore, and I hate writing that about a Darkthrone record (mostly because it should make no sense in the first place). At no point did I ever truly hate anything on the album, but only once did I perk up and think “oh that’s cool” (during the middle of the “Duke of Gloat” and its nifty little faster tempo bridge). I know I’m in the minority, and most will dismiss me (and that’s fine), but Darkthrone sounds a little aimless and drifting here.

Aephanemer – Prokopton:

I have no one but Spotify to thank for this brilliant recommendation. I was listening to the latest Gloryhammer on it, and after it was finished playing through this album popped up, the service’s algorithm coming through in a big way. I should add that Aephanemer really has nothing in common with Gloryhammer, except maybe a penchant for melody and memorability in their songs. Oh sure there’s a subtle power metal influence here ala Wintersun or Brymir, but Toulouse, France’s Aephanemer blend together a distinctly Swedish strain of melodic death metal with stirring, uplifting symphonic swirls. Sometimes when you try to describe a band in text, it just comes across like more of something you’ve already heard before (“Oh, so its like Wintersun?” *slaps forehead*). I think what separates Aephanemer from any of its peers working with similar stylistic fusions is this band’s heavy tilt towards Gothenburg melodic death, rather than the more melancholic Finnish variety. Its enough of a distinctive difference that it allows their other fusions with symphonic elements and wildly creative melodic detours to combine into something I don’t think I’ve quite heard before (and that alone is as surprising as how unique this album sounds). This is the French four piece’s sophomore album, and it is a far more engaging and sophisticated continuation of what they began on their solid 2016 debut full length Momento Mori. Its not that common for the artistic gap between a debut and a sophomore album to be this wide, but for Aephanemer, this feels like they’ve graduated ahead of schedule.

One of the things I’m appreciating about this band is just how integral every member’s contributions feel —- vocalist/rhythm guitarist Marion Bascoul is the natural centerpiece, her perfectly suited growling/screaming blend the right tone and color for the band’s music. She’s a bruising rhythm player too, her playing both appropriately full of sonic crunch and little dabs of thrashiness to prevent things from ever feeling anywhere near clinical. She’s accompanied by an astonishingly tight rhythm section in bassist Lucie Woaye Hune and drummer Mickaël Bonnevialle; the latter a vividly creative percussionist, spitting out fills and inventive patterns that are enjoyable in their own right, and Hune’s bass is an aggressive underbelly to Bascoul’s riffing, rumbling along audibly in the mix. Of course, the can’t miss element in all this is lead guitarist Martin Hamiche’s spectacularly energetic, fluid, and at times even gorgeous playing. His work across this album seems entirely natural and unrehearsed, even though I’m almost certain that every single note he’s playing was carefully crafted into place. His deft melodic phrasing is the glue that holds everything together and in a weird twist, he seems to weave in and around everyone else rather than simply lay atop their bed of sound as we’re so used to expecting from other bands. It should be pointed out that the mixing here was handled by none other than Dan Swanö, and he nailed a perfect balance for this album —- its one of the most crisp yet not clinical recordings you’ll likely hear, well ever.

The album begins with the title track and after a minute of pounding drum fueled introductory theatrics, we’re off into glorious melo-death territory. I’m enthralled by the way it sounds like the metallic attack here is being surrounded but never engulfed by the orchestral elements. Hamiche’s songwriting in this regard is superb, demonstrating that innate awareness of balance and layering. On the excellent “The Sovereign”, we’re treated to more of that precision balancing between the skyward shooting keyboard orchestral melodies, and the dizzying lead guitar work. We’re treated to a similar ear candy explosion on “Bloodline”, those gorgeous In Flames-ish harmonized guitars during the verses hitting the melo-death sweet spot in all of us and it seems like the orchestral melodies just keep escalating the pitch higher and higher. During the ecstatic mid-song bridge at the 2:57 mark, Hamiche’s self-professed classical influences radiate through like a ray of sun breaking through cloud cover. Its such a mighty, triumphant moment that I uttered awe inspired profanity when I first heard it sitting here at my desk however many weeks ago. I love the near panicky tempo and attack of the epic “If I Should Die”, which is just about the most perfect slice of Bodom meets In Flames inspired melo-death I’ve heard in ages. My favorite track right now (this is constantly shifting, it was “Dissonance Within” the other day) is “Back Again”, which is really this album summarized in an absolute stunner of a track, full of vicious riffs and darkened, melancholic laden melodies that tug on my heartstrings with every single listen. This is what I love about melodic death metal, that when perfectly executed, a single song can seemingly encapsulate so many boiling emotions. This is a must listen to album for 2019 (you can download it for free or pay what you want at their bandcamp —- no excuses!) and at this point, I have no doubt its going to be winding up on many year end lists, including mine.

Gloryhammer – Legends From Beyond The Galactic Terrorvortex:

I suspect that the cracks in my demeanor towards Gloryhammer surfaced during the review for Space 1992 when I admitted to liking “Universe on Fire”. Reading back on that review now, I notice two things: For starters I didn’t give enough credit to the actual quality of power metal that is present in Gloryhammer’s music in terms of songwriting and musicianship. Clearly, for everything to sound as good and often inspired as it does on Legends… you require musicians that are committed to delivering that, and that’s something that I don’t think can be faked. Christopher Bowes is a talented songwriter, and even though he’d never admit to any band or songwriter specific power metal influences (I suspect largely because it’d put a crimp in the image he portrays in interviews where he dismisses everything about metal as self-serious and lame), you have to at the very least appreciate power metal to emulate it as well as he does. And secondly, maybe I wasn’t being entirely honest with myself and everyone else reading about just how much it was bugging me that newcomers were latching onto Gloryhammer as their introduction to power metal. Here was this band arriving on the scene with a campy, mostly humorous, over the top space opera storyline with its band members even playing characters —- and they were getting attention from mainstream media in a way that power metal rarely has (ditto for their peers in the much lesser Twilight Force, who got a Vice feature… although maybe that’s not worth so much these days). It grated on me that these outsider media outlets were only willing to accept power metal when it openly poked fun at itself, and in essence were willfully or naively disregarding two decades plus of amazing music by incredible artists (those being the ones who had the nerve to take themselves seriously). Look, I’ll admit now that it was wrong of me to hold that grudge against these bands themselves, rather than simply at the mainstream/non-metal media in question. They were the ones deserving of scorn, and I got it wrong.

I’ve come to realize all this because over the past year plus I’ve been reading and participating in discussions about all things power metal with the fine people at r/PowerMetal (both the subreddit and the associated Discord), as well as digesting a great pod that everyone should check out called .powerful – a power metal podcast. I’ve gotten to filter my thoughts through them and come out the other end with a far more open minded perspective, one that accepts Gloryhammer as a potential gateway band for power metal in the same way Dragonforce possibly was (and Sabaton currently is). One of the discord members, LarryBiscuit went to see the band in Arizona on their recent tour with Aether Realm, and he noticed that most of the fans there were Gloryhammer fans, not metal fans per se. That’s something I noticed every time I saw Alestorm and even a band like Sabaton. A great deal of people showing up are primarily fans of those bands exclusively at that time, meaning they don’t care about the opener or know about them, nor are they metal fans of any stripe in general. I’ve spoken to people at Sabaton gigs who fit that description, and its something I’ve kept in my mind ever since —- and that’s rushed up to slap me in the face recently. I’ve always resisted writing anything snarky about bands like Five Finger Death Punch and the like because I view them as gateway bands to metal, that necessary component to keeping all forms of metal healthy with new potential fans cycling in. And what I’ve come to fully accept now is that maybe its a great thing that Gloryhammer is drawing in these folks, maybe geeky leaning people who could possibly wonder what else is out there that sounds somewhat similar to that band. One can only hope that some of them will venture down that road.

That Gloryhammer aren’t exactly breaking new ground should be obvious —- you already know what they sound like even if you haven’t heard a note. What’s worth mentioning here however is just how well crafted these songs are, and how impressive specific performances are on this recording. First off, vocalist Thomas Winkler just gets better and better, this being his command performance to date. He’s simply one of the premiere vocal talents in power metal worldwide right now, capable of a theatrical slant to his delivery that befits his character Angus McFife XIII, at times reminding me of a more full throated Mathias Blad and Tobias Sammet crossover. He knows how to inject just the right amount of variance from one iteration of a chorus to another to keep things interesting, and those choices are important to keeping things sonically interesting even though these are some excellent, vocalist-proof hooks he’s working with. I wouldn’t mind hearing him in another context, just to get an idea of just how expansive he could be given different material. Guitarist Paul Templing might be a little underrated given that he’s handling seemingly both rhythm and leads. He’s dexterous enough a player to deliver both tight, packed, even at times thrash-tinged riffing, while tossing out some ear candied licks as verse cappers and juxtaposing accents to Bowes keyboard melodies. There’s honestly not a bad song among the bunch here, but the killer track is “Gloryhammer”, as excellent a song as Bowes has ever written, well structured and paced, and suitably epic in spirit and joyful at once. I even think they nailed its CGI music video, which has to be a first for any power metal band. I also adore “Masters of the Galaxy”, because that’s a chorus that just refuses to quit… it indeed was stuck in my head for a week straight. And you know a power metal record is solid when its twelve minute plus closing epic, “The Fires Of Ancient Cosmic Destiny”, is one of the best songs on the album, galactic evil wizard narration and all. One of the most fun albums of the year —- I finally get it.

Lords of Chaos: The Metal Pigeon Review

Jack Kilmer, Jonathan Barnwell, Rory Culkin and Anthony De La Torre appear in Lords of Chaos by Jonas Åkerlund, an official selection of the Midnight program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.  All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.


I honestly thought about skipping the theatrical release of Lords of Chaos, but when it arrived here on Friday, February 15th at the Alamo Drafthouse for its opening night showing, I figured what the hell. After all in December of 2009 I went to see Until The Light Takes Us at another Alamo Drafthouse, and there’s something about pecan porters and Belgian white ales and black metal films that just goes so well together. I had bought and read the book of course, way back when it first hit American bookstore shelves in the late 90’s and I poured over every page, only later to find out through various sources that a lot of the book was in dispute by those who were its subjects. Mostly Varg, but I recall reading a lot of criticism from the Mayhem camp, as well side figures like Ihsahn, Samoth, and Satyr who seemed to be outside the “inner circle” but close enough to know what was likely true and outright fabrication. As a result, I held a lot of prejudices against the book for quite some time (and to be honest still do), particularly in the overblown sensationalist aspect of propping up satanism as the central theme. I think it was a decade ago plus when we first started hearing that it would be turned into a film, and my primary thought beyond “that will never get made” was that the only way it could be any good is if it departed from the book in a meaningful way and attempted a more honest portrayal.

Cue Jonas Akerlund, probably the only director who was meant to handle a project like this, not only for his very brief stint in Bathory, but for the connection he’s maintained to metal in general even throughout his years directing videos for pop stars. Before the film started, well before the coming attractions, various music videos and strange film shorts by Akerlund were being played on the big screen, including his gritty video for Metallica’s “Turn The Page” and his glossier clip for Lady Gaga’s “John Wayne”. I wondered if they’d show his clip for Satyricon’s “Fuel For Hatred” considering its the only black metal band he’s done one for but no such luck. The Metallica clip was a good reminder of Akerlund’s tendencies though, a stark, unpolished bit of filmmaking through a humanist perspective. Its the struggle of a mom’s transient lifestyle living out of hotel rooms while working at a strip club during the evenings and hooking long after her daughter has gone to sleep. This aggressively hyper-realist perspective also informed his video for The Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up”, where similarly the very ordinariness of the setting is a character in itself. In Lords of Chaos, there’s a moment when a domineering Varg barks at a young woman to disrobe, and its an uncomfortable, tension filled moment that is anything but sexy. She has a noticeable cyst that Akerlund makes sure viewers see, and the brightly lit room is quiet but for the sounds of a belt buckle hitting the floor after Varg growls “Are you deaf?” as he and Euronymous sit and watch.

This story is filled with ugliness and violence, and filmed without restraint in displaying that to the viewer. There’s the eerily distant manner in which we’re shown Dead’s suicide, without any emotional maneuvering via music, just a stark series of shots that show him sitting on the floor of his room slicing his wrists, forearms, and neck, stumbling to a desk to write a bloody suicide note as he’s gushing all over the place, and finally to his mattress where he sits against the wall, pulls the barrel of a gun to his head and fires without pause. Euronymous finding his body is a similarly disquieting sequence, the kind of reaction that seems rational and entirely illogical at once —- and when we come back to this later in the film, its surprisingly heartbreaking. Akerlund doesn’t glorify violence in the film, in fact his depiction of it is so upsetting that you’re wishing certain scenes didn’t linger as long as they did. When Faust is shown stabbing Magne Andreassen in Lillehammer Park, we seemingly see all 37 strikes he reportedly delivered, and its gruesome and terrible to take in. Worse yet is the final confrontation between Varg and Euronymous, a scene that is far more upsetting than I expected it to be, made worse not only for the sheer bloodiness, but for the senselessness of the whole thing. Akerlund’s style adds grit and grounding to all these depictions —- there are no action shots, nothing is remotely stylized, instead we get a single cam feel of someone simply recording actual violence happening mere feet from the lens. Its utterly disturbing.

All my reservations about the choice of cast and the decision to have them speak in English without any Norwegian accents in their speech were dispelled in the film’s first twenty minutes, when Rory Culkin’s surprisingly fantastic portrayal of Euronymous does the unlikely trick of charming the audience. I’m being serious. You can’t help but like Euronymous in this film, and I suspect that’s on purpose for the audience to forge some emotional connection onto a central character for plot purposes, but at the same time, you get the feeling that Øystein Aarseth hid a relatively decent person beneath the thick layers of angst, disaffection, and petulant jealousy. Akerlund splices in seemingly minor details to illustrate the point: Øystein’s affection for his little sister when she’s helping him color his hair black; his apparent love for a local kebab place he frequents so much that he knows the owner by name; laying on the couch next to his dad when his mother calls dinner (“spaghetti bolognese!”); the humorous exchange with a Norwegian postman he respectfully addresses; his relationship with girlfriend Ann-Marit (played by Sky Ferreira) where he allows for insecurity and vulnerability; and of course a handful of scattered moments where he attempts to deescalate the fallout resulting from his own provocations. Culkin nails playing both Øystein and Euronymous, his performance filled with subtlety in depicting what makes this young man essentially two personalities that sometimes merge, but in the films more emotionally resonant moments, repel away from one another in mutual disgust.

The casting turned out to be one of the film’s strongest aspects, with authentic feeling supporting turns from all the members of the inner circle, particularly Emory Cohen as Varg. I admit to feeling a moment of hesitation when he first appeared on screen, a dorky metalhead in a jean jacket with a Scorpions patch (man the Scorps got dragged through the mud in this movie) who gets the cold shoulder by an unimpressed Euronymous. But I quickly remembered that the earliest photos of Vikernes himself are pretty much exactly that, Akerlund did his homework here. Cohen’s presence gradually ebbs from uncertain and insecure to disturbingly confident, certain, and possessed. Vikernes will not be happy with his portrayal, but in reading interviews with Akerlund, most of the depictions came from knowledge gleaned from a variety of sources (in other words, not just the book), with the director citing Vikernes’ own statements as part of their source material. Vikernes has turned into an idiosyncratic narcissist in his later years as a YouTube celebrity, spreading his hate and racist diatribes for any impressionable goon to lionize, but he’s also been very specific about his perception of events and the way things went down, and to his chagrin, the film takes him at his word. There was no way for a guy like Vikernes to be portrayed as a hero, even when he’s telling Euronymous in the middle of a church they’re about to burn about what pagan sites stood at that spot before the Christians came. Remember this film screened at Cannes and Sundance, scores of non-metal audiences have seen this film who know nothing about black metal or its history or relevance —- they could probably see his point during that particular moment, he’s getting retribution in some way, but even that can’t redeem him from coming across as a maniacal sociopath.

This is ultimately a story about a group of young men and teenagers in a pre-internet world who become so involved with their own uniquely defined subculture that they began to get in over their heads in their attempts to stage rebellion against the traditional Christian Norwegian society they’ve grown up in. Within that framework, its a deeper story about the bonds of friendship and the forces that cause them to wither and tear apart. Akerlund juxtaposes Øystein’s strange but comradely kinship with Per Ohlin (Dead) versus his slowly decaying alliance with Varg, the former featuring some of the film’s best laughs (there are a few) while the latter crackles with a barely restrained tension. Euronymous cuts as mysterious and ambiguous a character onscreen as he seems to in black metal history where multiple accounts differ as to just who he was as Øystein. Watching the film, his likability was a strange thing for me to admit at first, because I could easily see why so many considered him egotistical, jealous and manipulative. In that respect he’s a mirror image of who Varg becomes, and two of those personalities could not co-exist in one clique. Despite that, there were hints at redemption for him —- subtle things that suggest he cares for his friends, worries over their well-being (even if that means at the expense of others), he even seems to know when its time to distance himself from everything altogether. I didn’t anticipate feeling a tinge of sadness at the end, but I did.

Now that Lords of Chaos is out in theaters, and those who hoped it would never be made have to live with its nagging presence, I hope most metal fans put aside their reservations and give it a shot. Its not a perfect film, there’s some awfully corny dialogue at times, the music is severely neglected, and some people might be put off by its schizophrenic shifts in tone. Yet despite those things, I think it should be stressed that the more people check this out and support it the more likely it is that we can have future metal related films, be they documentaries or biopics like this. All the criticism the recent Bohemian Rhapsody biopic received for being selective with the truth seems deserved, but they can’t level quite the same thing at Lords of Chaos. The former is a band approved vanity project aimed squarely at propagating their own magnificence with an audience that’s likely sympathetic at worst and die-hard fans at best. Akerlund’s film is an entirely different beast however, non-metal audiences don’t learn about why black metal is unique, how or why its different from death metal, they barely even get to hear what Mayhem sounds like —- instead they get a deeply disturbing, saddening tale that offers no answers in the way of virtue or morality. For us as metal fans who’ve known this story for seemingly ever now, we get a visualization of a slice of history we weren’t privy to ourselves. Let me be clear —- none of these guys were heroes or martyrs and don’t deserve to be treated as such, but its our history, we’re responsible for documenting it properly and processing it. Akerlund never stopped being a metal fan, and to the extent that Lords of Chaos is a fellow metalhead’s interpretation of this grim story, we should support it with the same enthusiasm we muster for new music or live shows, regardless of its Hollywood fingerprints.

The Belated Fall Reviews Cluster: Darkthrone, Sonata, Theocracy, Alcest!

This is late incoming, oh I know, but better late than never right? This was supposed to come out in November but some real life stuff got in the way and exhaustion claimed most of what spare time was left. So while that left little time for writing, I did manage to get some extra listening time on all these releases below which proved critical in changing my opinion on one or two. This isn’t all that I listened to (hardly), but we’re running out of 2016 so this will be the last cluster of the year —-with that in mind, you might be hearing about a few albums not listed here on the upcoming Best of 2016 double feature. I’ll keep this preamble short, only to mention that I’ll have a hard look at the new Metallica coming next, with the year end lists following closely. This has been a rough year for the blog in terms of the update schedule, and one of my resolutions in 2017 is to simply write and publish more. Thanks for everyone who’s patiently stuck with me!


 

Darkthrone – Arctic Thunder:

If you have any interest in Darkthrone whatsoever (and I think you should), you’ve probably heard by now that this new album is something of a shift in style for them. That’s true to a certain extent, it is markedly different from their past three to four releases which found them delving deep into an almost black n’ roll approach to experimenting with more classic 80s metal stylings on 2013’s The Underground Resistance. But where those albums were taking the band into new, explored territory (for them anyway), Arctic Thunder is an about face to the black metal Darkthrone of the turn of the millennium, recalling the style of Plaguewielder and Hate Them. I imagine that for a lot of people the news that Darkthrone was returning to black metal brought about hopes of the band returning to their early, second wave style of A Blaze in the Northern Sky through Transilvanian Hunger, sort of what Blut Aus Nord did with their awesome and majestic Memoria Vetusta III. That would’ve required a severe and intentional handicapping of the sonics in the recording however, and I just don’t think that either Fenriz or Ted (Nocturno Culto) are all that interested in recreating the past like that.

In fact, sonics are the only thing that Arctic Thunder has with their black metal past, because even though it is far more grim and frost bitten than recent albums, you can’t tell me that middle riff that accelerates in “Inbred Vermin” is a black metal riff —- it sounds like it could be lifted off a mid to late 80s thrash album (not being Fenriz, I can’t pinpoint exactly what band and album it was inspired by). But this is a cleanly produced album, for all its first-take approach, Ted’s guitars are upfront, fresh and often crisp, full of nuance and intricacy in the actual execution of the riffs —- and Fenriz’s drumming is as full bodied and loud (the complete antithesis of the approach to drums in most early second wave Norwegian black metal). I had a strange time with this album as a listener, at first loving it due to its radical departure from what they had been doing and for the pleasure of hearing a colder, darker Darkthrone once again. That actually lasted awhile, a few weeks in fact. But over time I’d begun find myself longing to hear Circle the Wagons and The Underground Resistance, and when I went through those albums again I realized what Arctic Thunder was lacking (and it always comes back to this) —- hooky, memorable songs.

There are a few moments that fit that bill, “Tundra Leach” serving as an excellent album opener, with a bleak, dirty sounding riff that accelerates into tremolo flourishes. There’s an awesome moment midway through where an abrupt shift occurs —- built on pounding, tribal beat percussion and a classic metal riff that takes us into Metallica’s “Creeping Death” territory (think of the moments before “Die! By my hand…!”). Then there’s “Boreal Fiends” which successfully takes on the same approach, hitting you with a memorable riff straight away, this time with loud/quiet dynamics in between verses, only to lead to an about face mid-song. That shift, at the 4:18 mark, is as grin inducing as it is unexpected, Fenriz coming back from a funeral doom tempo with a cowbell accented over a meaty, flat out heavy riff. The guitar solo that follows is a surprise as well, a rare blast of technicality and intricacy from a band that is essentially built from large, wet slabs of uncut riffs stacked hither and yon. The thing I’ve realized after umpteen listens to this album however is that there’s not enough of that kind of variety, not enough surprises. For instance I like the main riff on “Burial Bliss”, it coming across as a sort of black metal take on the Misfits, but the song lacks a hook in a bad way, being one of the chief examples of how things can get repetitive here rather quickly. I have no problem with the band returning to this more blackened approach, but they clearly need another album to fully re-acclimate.

 

 

Alcest – Kodama:

Some of you might remember that Alcest was a Metal Pigeon Best of 2012 finisher with their magnificent Les Voyages de l’Âme, the album that made a fan of me with its panoramic scope and sweeping beauty. Beauty of course is a key word when discussing Alcest, because they don’t shy away from it, their albums chock full of melodies that can only be described as such. If you’re not familiar at all, Alcest is the pioneer of French black metal, which took the atmospherics of second wave Norwegian black metal ala Burzum’s Filosofem and deconstructed its metallic nature, replacing harsh, atonal riffing with dreamy, shoe-gaze inspired melodicism. They use guitars and keyboards in equal measure, whatever it takes really, to achieve a sound that is the aural equivalent of a watercolor painting, where most metal regardless of subgenre is more akin to a construction project (foundations, walls, etc… you get the idea). On that aforementioned album, they blossomed into that rare metal band that could make fans of non-metal folks, particularly if they’d ever been a fan of Sigur Ros, Porcupine Tree, or even Smashing Pumpkins for that matter (that band’s influence on Alcest is under discussed and overlooked).

Disappointingly for me, Alcest decided to abandon their blackgaze approach for 2014’s Shelter, leaving us with a record full of bright, sunlit post-rock that was certainly pretty, but was noticeably lacking the expansive vision and bottomless depth of Alcest in their full glory. I’m sure they’re glad they made that record, one that pushed them in a way to expand their sound and to see what could come of it artistically. What I suspect they realized however, was that the darkness that comes from their black metal origins and influences is not something that’s easily shed. Without it, they sounded to me like another post-rock/shoegaze band, a good one certainly, but as an Alcest album Shelter was merely pretty on a surface level, it never pulled me in deeper. Thankfully, they’ve happily returned with their full complement of influences on display, as they demonstrate here with the awe-inspiring Kodama. Thus proving that the darkness they explore through black metal aesthetics is the key to their unlocking that cosmic door from which spills their transcendent sound.

This album is simultaneously a return to form and a departure, the latter being the injection of a album wide pronounced Japanese influence; not only for the album title (“kodama” literally means both “tree spirit” and “echo”) and the accompanying artwork that depicts a Japanese woman in some uncomfortable looking waters, but mostly for the Japanese folk melodies that work as musical leitmotifs throughout the album. I could pinpoint an example but that would be a little silly, because this influence is coursing through almost every riff, melody, and extended musical passage of Kodama —- unlike a lot of cases where metal bands will use cultural music as window dressing and stick to their own sound otherwise, Alcest here submerge their songwriting into this wellspring of Japanese musical inspiration entirely. Frontman, vocalist, guitarist, and all around songwriter Neige is on record about the purpose of his doing so, that the album is directly inspired by the animated film Princess Mononoke, and that in his words, its about “the confrontation of the natural world and the human world”. That was something he witnessed firsthand when Alcest played in Japan a few years ago, stating, “Japan has a hyper technologic society, always ahead of its time, full of crazy items, gadgets, etc, but yet people there are very attached to tradition, nature, and spirituality.” Of course, if you’ve seen the film (you should, its a classic), its easy to tie Neige’s own observation and tie it into the film’s narrative, both boiling down to this idea of duality and how we all deal with it in various forms.

I love the intellectual depth of conceptual albums like this, in many ways reminding me of 2015’s almost album of the year, Hand. Cannot. Erase. by Steven Wilson. Its the stuff that concept albums should be made of, instead of what we usually get in rock and metal —- mostly paper-thin surface narratives of ridiculous stories that have little to no meaningful echo to them whatsoever. I’m not trying to be snooty here, I love many albums that meet that description to a tee, but when a zillion other bands deliver their own version of it, it gets a little boring, trite, and dumb (after awhile you stop paying attention to bands’ concepts altogether). And setting the concept aside, Kodama is a musical wonder as well, eschewing traditional verse-chorus-verse pop formatting in favor of longer tracks with more of a storytelling song structure. Hardly anything repeats, but somehow all of its seven tracks and forty-right minutes are captivating —- the parts that sound like a build up actually deliver pay-offs, and there’s an equal balance of light and shadow as heavy riffs run headlong into transcendent ethereal sequences.

On the first single and most representative track matching the preceding description, “Oiseaux De Proie, a loose, jazzy mid-song bridge plunges dramatically into perhaps the album’s most up-tempo, accelerated moment (check the 5:50 mark). Its an adrenaline rush, largely due to how unexpected it was. This lack of foreshadowing is what keeps your attention rapt throughout Kodama, because you never really know what’s around the next minute mark. And I love how Neige does unexpected things texturally as well, such as the prominent use of the bass as a primary melodic instrument in the opening/title track, a quirky choice that creates separation with the higher pitched guitar accents that drift and careen above it. He also uses minimalist guitar to hearken to that Japanese sound that was discussed earlier on “Eclosion”, the patterns and phrasing and sleek, clean tones mimicking that country’s native folk melodies. I also love the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream influences that wash all over that track towards the middle bridge onwards —- Neige acknowledges them as a major influence and there are times when you can close your eyes and imagine this as something from their mid-90s era output. That actually might be my favorite on the album, its peaceful lone-guitar fade out saying more in those few delicate notes than many bands manage in an entire song. Ditto for closing instrumental “Notre Sang Et Nos Pensées”, with its descending chord patterns blossoming into one of the year’s most memorable musical moments. Make no mistake, this will be on my album of the year list, only question is how high.

 

 

Sonata Arctica – The Ninth Hour:

Its kind of unfortunate that I have to write this review before I’ll be seeing the band live here in Houston come mid-December, because as you might remember from their last album Pariah’s Child, I ended up enjoying most of its songs far more after I had heard their live airing a few months after my initial review. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy that album at all before the concert, but moreso that Tony Kakko’s impressive live performance both as a vocalist and a performance artist helped me see why he made the choices he did on the album as a songwriter. So I wonder, how much will my opinion change on songs like “Life”, or “We Are What We Are”, “Fairytale”, and “Closer to an Animal” (those being the primary cuts they seem to be pulling from this disc). They’re not bad songs by any means, the former being the first music video filmed for the album, with a chorus built on some amusing lyrical self-criticism by Kakko, who sings, “Life is better alive”, a lyric we could tear to pieces if it weren’t followed immediately by “It is a dumb thing to say / But the fact won’t wane away”, which in a nutshell encapsulates the theme of the song. Sonata Arctica have never been ones to shy away from positivity as a lyrical theme, particularly as of late —- it does not however make for a hook as strong as “The Wolves Die Young”.

But where Pariah’s Child was in some ways meant to be a classicist Sonata album (that’s debatable), The Ninth Hour isn’t explicitly held to such guidelines because its a part concept album, or thematic album to be more precise. The Stratovarius influence over Sonata Arctica looms particularly large here with the theme of environmentalism and reigning in of humanity’s careless destruction of the planet. If you weren’t familiar with Stratovarius albums around the turn of the millennium, that’s pretty much what those guys sang about for a handful of ’em. So a thematic leaning song like “We Are What We Are” is given license to be a bit more expansive, less concerned with delivering those knockout Sonata hooks we love in favor of non-romantic balladry that leans more towards White Lion’s “When the  Children Cry” than “Tallulah”. It only works because despite its too slow for slow dancing pace and downtrodden vibe, Kakko’s melody is charmingly simple and beautiful, almost lullaby-esque. Similarly on “White Pearl, Black Oceans Pt II” (a sequel to the original much beloved fan classic from Reckoning Night), Kakko allows a more overwhelmingly lyrical songwriting approach to govern things, which makes sense considering the narrative nature of the song in continuing a story. But in 2016, that means its a track that is substantially slower than its predecessor, lacking the midtempo and uptempo change ups that so characterized the original. Some might not like that, but I think the melody really works here, used as more of a Broadway show centerpiece complete with mimicking orchestral arrangement.

Not everything is slowed down though, there’s the surprisingly heavy and accelerating “Fly. Navigate. Communicate”, which took me awhile to get into but I now can appreciate for its striking aggression alongside its subtle lyrical hook. And “Rise A Night” is a classic uptempo slice of Sonata power metal with a nice verse and lead in bridge, only to meet a middling, aimless chorus that lacks a defining hook, a trait that handicaps the entire song sadly. Then there’s the strongly starting “Fairytale” where the inverse is the problem —- we’re treated to a memorable hook that doesn’t hit as hard as it could due to there being no build up to it via tempo shift or fully formed bridge. Of course when it comes to Sonata Arctica albums post 2004, we’re not expecting complete perfection, just some moments of perfection… and here’s where The Ninth Hour is worryingly deficient. There’s nothing here that I’d really consider adding to my Sonata playlist on the iPod, and there usually is at least a track or two per album. I’d give a huge maybe to the charming ballad “Candle Lawns”, but I’ve really gotta be in the mood for it. I honestly don’t know what to make of this album, and I know that makes for a crappy review —- but there’s nothing here that is shockingly bad like we’ve had in spots on the past three albums. In fact, its all just sounds alright, but I know I don’t often come back to revisit an album that’s just “alright”. Maybe I’ll have more to say after I see them two weeks from now.

 

 

Theocracy – Ghost Ship:

I’ve been a quiet admirer of the Atlanta based Theocracy and its 98-01 era Tobias Sammet channeling vocalist/songwriter Matt Smith for a few years now. I got into them with 2011’s As The World Bleeds, an album of power metal songwriting perfection of such magnitude I strongly believe its one of the classics of the genre. I had first heard of the band way back in 2003 with their self-titled debut which was promising despite its flaws, but I promptly cut my interest when I learned that the band was outwardly Christian. Sure enough, the lyrics checked out, and I naively wrote the band off. In my defense I was young, stupid(er), and not mature enough to reconcile that it was okay to enjoy a band that was outwardly religious in their lyrics if I enjoyed their music in general. Looking back now, I suppose I thought it was anathema, to be into metal and subgenres like black metal which were largely about the darker stuff in life while simultaneously listening to something so religiously positive, so opposite in spirit. Never mind that I enjoyed U2 with all their Christian background, nor that I was conveniently ignoring the strongly religious overtones of Edguy’s classic Theater of Salvation. In between, I missed 2008’s Mirror of Souls, another quality release with some excellent songwriting, and when I finally did come around in 2011, I chickened out on publishing a fully written piece on Theocracy (if I remember right it was about whether or not it hypocritical to like their music without sharing their views on faith… guess the jury’s still out there). So essentially, no one has really known about how much I’ve loved this feisty prog-power metal band’s music, when I’ve been all too eager to champion any really worthwhile American bands of this genre. In all… Theocracy deserved better from me.

I’m quite keen on rectifying this here, even in a shorter, abbreviated review, although I might not have done the band a service had I reviewed this album shortly after first hearing it in mid-October. For whatever reason, I was having a devil of a time getting into Ghost Ship for the first few weeks I had it, and maybe it was due to other things competing for my attention (one of which may have been the ultra-negativity of the 2016 election… maybe I just wasn’t ready to hear something bright and positive just then…?). That seems so absurd and unlikely now given how much I’ve been enjoying these songs on their own merits, and that last bit is crucial to those of you who are already familiar with their past albums: In short, as hard as it might be, don’t compare this album to As The World Bleeds! You will of course, its only natural, but I say that for two reasons; first, …Bleeds was a uniquely excellent album, a perfecting of a specific type of aggressive power metal and dense, solid production that Edguy first introduced with 2000’s Mandrake; and secondly, because Theocracy has greatly expanded their sound intro far more progressive areas with Ghost Ship, toning down the pure Euro-step power metal influences and increasing their Queensryche influenced tendencies a bit. This is a far reaching, thorough permeation, affecting all the songs on the new album across the board, and maybe it makes them less instantly accessible —- though it must be stressed, that accessibility is still there, it just requires more listens than their previous albums.

You’ll hear that accessibility most vividly on leaner cuts such as the title track or on the lyrics contrasting cheerfulness of “Castaway”. Regarding the former, Smith is among those few in power metal circles so gifted at peppering his already hook-laden songs with those glory-claw raising micro-hooks like the ones heard at the :40 second and 2:02 minute marks. They come via his simply changing the key of his vocal delivery of a verse lyric mid-phrase, from a not-quite minor key to an abrupt, full-on MAJOR key. Its such musical ear-candy, and mark of a talented songwriter who knows how to utilize the technical prowess of his band and his vocal ability to inject these viscerally energy packed moments into the fiber of these songs. That awareness as a songwriter, to keep his songs dancing on two feet like a boxer in his fighting stance, unpredictable and ready to strike at a moment with a flourish of a micro-hook or ultra-melodic figure or accent is what keeps our attention even through lengthy epics such as the nine-minute “Easter”. Midway through we shift from a thunderous, choral vocal backed section into a solo acoustic guitar sequence with a gorgeous, arcing melody at the 6:38 mark that will always have me returning to this song. That’s the kind of attention to detail that characterized the best of Tobias Sammet’s lengthier epics back in the classic Edguy era (think “Theater of Salvation” and “The Pharaoh”).

Of course its not just the minor details that make these songs work. They’re carefully crafted with strong melodies and semi-technical instrumentation, with often gorgeous guitar work from Val Allen Wood and Jonathan Hinds, as well as soaring vocals via Smith’s helium tinged tenor. As I sit here listening to this album for the millionth time, I wonder if Smith’s English as birth language familiarity is his secret to songwriting success as an American well-versed in writing in the European vein of power metal. Theocracy can bring the wood, but they never get really heavy like Iced Earth, Pharaoh, or even Kamelot —- all fellow American power metal bands who utilize thrash metal elements or in Kamelot’s case, prog-rock and mid-tempo time signatures. Those American and British stylistic influences temper their power metal and make it easy for them to match their vocal melodies to lyrics in a suitable manner (I realize Roy Khan is of Norwegian decent, and he of course wrote most of Kamelot’s beautiful lyrics, but he’s an outlier in this case). Theocracy is a rare duck being an American band coming from the Edguy/Avantasia/Gamma Ray/ Helloween school of power metal, all of whom are guilty of lyrical atrocities. Smith’s songwriting from a lyrics to vocal melody perspective is so effortless, so smooth, that it actually helps the melodies flow like water —- there’s nary an awkward pause. His lyrics are finely written, and seemingly always set to melodies that fit them perfectly like a glove. That pairing is likely to be the litmus test for most people, can they allow themselves to enjoy those melodies despite them being set to (very finely written) spiritual lyrics. I definitely can.

 

Beyond the Black: Darkthrone’s The Underground Resistance

There’s a moment on the new Darkthrone record, the typically Fenriz-esque titled The Underground Resistance, where you might smile and think to yourself, “These cheeky bastards.” Its at the start of “Valkyrie”, where Metallica-esque acoustic guitars chime in a ghost version of the reoccurring melody that carries this really bad-assed musical ode to classic metal of the 80s. Its a moment that I speculate was left in purely to piss off those people who tend to allow themselves to get pissed off over newer Darkthrone music.

 

I’m sure Fenriz would disagree, but you tell me if there’s a more self-aware artist within extreme metal today? Of Darkthrone, it is generally accepted that Fenriz is the contextual historian, the purist, the idealist — whereas Nocturno Culto, or Ted as I’ll refer to him from now on is the band’s charismatic spiritual force, and the one who you can really believe is fairly oblivious to the perspectives of fans, critics, and anyone else who has an opinion of his band’s works. I wonder if Ted’s approach to Darkthrone is the driving force to keep the music going. Don’t get me wrong, I like Fenriz — (he’s such an endearing personality, how could anyone remotely into metal not?) but I get the feeling that if the whole operation were left up to him, he’d be far more didactic about songwriting and the end results wouldn’t be nearly as fist-pumpingly awesome as the ones we’re getting on The Underground Resistance.

 

This is not a black metal record. This is a balls to the walls pure heavy metal album in a kaleidoscope of classic metal styles fused together through grimy Darkthrone mirrors. Much has been made, positively and negatively, of the King Diamond-esque wailing vocals found on the pre-release track “Leave No Cross Unturned” (Fenriz has gone on record in saying the vocal was more influenced by Geoff Tate circa 1984 but hell it sounded like the King to me and everyone else). That was as good as any moment from this fairly short album to single out as a microcosm of what Darkthrone are trying to achieve here, but the wider perspective that I gained after hearing the five other cuts is that this is easily the most extroverted, outward music the band has ever made.

 

Darkthrone press shot 2013
December 12, 2012
© Ashley Maile

I won’t go into typical topics like catchiness and what style the riffs are molded from, because you’re an educated reader and know about the musical path that these guys have been walking down for the past couple albums now. Whats surprising and different about this album is just how much the guys have really reigned in the punkier aspects of their attack, tightened up the riffing, and for the first time ever cleaned up the production (seriously cleaned UP!). The end result of all this is a serious muscling up of the Darkthrone sound, and without realizing that I wanted it, Darkthrone have given me the album that I’ve been craving from them. As much as I have loved and appreciated newer Darkthrone, especially 2010’s Circle the Wagons, I’ve always felt that sonically they were miles away from the musical approach of 80s metal artists that Fenriz himself so championed. What happened with this album is that someone barged into Fenriz’s apartment, threw off whatever was on the turntable and put on a rotation of Stained Class, the first two Metal Church records, and Don’t Break the Oath and yelled at him to only listen to these from now on.

 

Its absurdly early to be talking about the best albums of 2013, but you’ll see this on a lot of lists to be sure, and of course, you’ll see it left off the lists of a lot of curmudgeons as well. Some people can’t handle Darkthrone’s adamant refusal to return to pure black metal and as a result will not be able to accept reality, which is this: The Underground Resistance is the BEST Darkthrone album of the past decade, and perhaps their most enjoyable record ever. If you don’t have fun listening to this, you’re wrong.

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uRzoMlmWNHo&w=560&h=315]

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Five Most Anticipated Albums of 2013

Killer metal tends to come in waves that ebb and flow. For example from 2010 through 2012 one could not begin to stem the tide of awesome new releases being dished out every single month. This prolific three year stretch of metallic goodness was particularly noticeable when juxtaposed next to the comparative drought metal seemed to go through from 2006-2009 (hey, at least to me anyway). So the question of the moment has to be whether or not 2013 can maintain this high velocity level we’ve gotten used to from metal artists worldwide, spanning all sub genres. We won’t know until the year’s over but the tentative 2013 release schedules that are being compiled and posted on metal sites all over are promising to say the least. Here are my personal top five most anticipated metal releases of this new year!

 

 

1. Queensrÿche – TBA:

Just to clarify, I’m referring to the Todd LaTorre fronted, real Queensrÿche that has within its ranks founding members Michael Wilton, Scott Rockenfield, and Eddie Jackson. The abortion that is Geoff Tate’s Queensrÿche can go die a slow, miserable, dinner-theater death. Why is this my most anticipated release of the year? Well my Queensrÿche fandom runs way back in my metal loving infancy, they were among some of the first bands to really make me appreciate music on a far more complex level, as well as being a musical cornerstone for a type of sound that I love to this day. They were one of my gateway bands in other words, and to see the deterioration that they had to go through in their post-Chris DeGarmo era at the hands of the woeful Tate and Yoko Tate has been more than a man can bear. When they finally gave him the boot in April of 2012 and soon afterwards debuted their newly recruited vocalist, LaTorre from Crimson Glory, I felt that one of my old favorites had been given a new lease on life. The recorded live clips of their recent string of shows have been nothing short of fantastic and grin inducing, and the talk of what this new album is supposed to be has me cautiously optimistic. I’m hopeful that these guys will make good on their promise to release a prog-metal album in the vein of what Queensrÿche fans have long hungered for.

 

 

2. Avantasia – The Mystery of Time:

Maybe the least surprising factoid for many of you who read this blog often is that I’m a fairly huge power metal fan. When I was first exploring metal that was off the American mainstream radar I briefly shunned power metal, sticking to death and melodic death metal with inborn stubbornness. But I loosened up when three power metal titans punched me in the face with releases from the late 90s, namely, Blind Guardian, Iced Earth, and Edguy. The latter of which contained one of the sub genre’s truly fantastic personalities: Edguy’s mercurial frontman, Tobias Sammet, was a vivid, loud, and zany character — but also one of the most accomplished and prolific songwriters that metal had ever seen. In a span of three years, 1998 to 2001, he knocked out of the ballpark three power metal classics with Edguy’s Vain Glory Opera, Theater of Salvation, and Mandrake.

 

The fact that he was folding into that same time frame a pair of classic records with his solo project Avantasia’s The Metal Opera Pt I & II was not only an incredible feat, but also the defining moment for the sub genre in what was a watershed period of excellent releases that began in the mid-nineties and would span well over a decade. It was a great time to be a fan of this style of metal. When he brought the project back in 2008 and onwards with a trio of releases and a new line-up, I felt like Sammet was forging a new path within power metal itself by mixing traditional elements with AOR, hard rock, and even pop. Sure there were catcalls and criticisms from naysayers who felt he was straying too far from the sub genre’s trademark elements, but to his credit, he insisted on making the records that he wanted to hear. This new album then, due out in March, is yet another resurrection of the Avantasia project, and Sammet is assembling another interesting cast of guest vocalists and musicians that I hope will live up to the exciting musical legacy already established with the previous releases.

 

But here’s the real talk about Sammet, regardless of how much he tries to deny it, its becoming clear that Avantasia has supplanted Edguy as his primary focus. When your solo project starts to outgun your main band’s albums in terms of songwriting quality, scale, ambition, and record sales, its obvious where you’re subconsciously or consciously putting forth most of your efforts. And I guess I’m fine with that. No disrespect to the fellows in Edguy, but I suppose I’m more of a fan of Tobias Sammet and his songwriting than anything else, no matter what project its in. It’ll be interesting to see the futures of both projects.

 

 

 

3. Darkthrone – The Underground Resistance:

I know its not just myself that feels this way, but generally speaking, I think I enjoy listening to the latter day, more recent Darkthrone albums than their earlier ones. Sacrilege? To many yes. But here’s the thing, there’s only so many times I can listen to A Blaze in the Northern Sky and Transilvanian Hunger without feeling like I’m spinning my wheels a bit. Those were the records that I’d see references in metal magazines lists of essential black metal listening, the ones name dropped by so many bands, and the ones that its generally believed that a metal fan needs to devour in order to understand the complete picture of black metal.

 

Hey, that was all fine with me — if a bit studious, but there is such a thing as over listening to an album (still can’t really listen to those Emperor albums anymore). Darkthrone made an abrupt stylistic shift to a punky, crusty, thrashy black metal blend with 2003’s Hate Them and never really looked back. This approach has progressed to a more and more non-traditional sound, culminating in what might be one of their best records to date, 2010’s Circle the Wagons. Clean singing in Darkthrone songs? Clean(er) production on a Darkthrone album? What the hell was going on right? If all else failed it was worth it simply to see the internet black metal crybabies go berserk on the Metal Archives and black metal blogs everywhere. But I loved that record, and enjoyed the four that preceded it (yes I’m even including The Cult Is Alive with its critic-baiting, rage-inducing “Too Old, Too Cold”). If the teaser that’s out for the new album is any indication — where the vocals take on a near Mercyful Fate-esque quality — troo kvlt fans will be even more pissed off and I’ll be even more pleased. Good stuff.

 

 

 

4. Satyricon – TBA:

It has been just under four and a half years since Satyr and Frost released any new music together. That is considered a rather long time in metal, a genre where Wintersun’s eight year delay of Time I was considered a long enough period to deem Jari Mäenpää as Axl Rose’s Finnish cousin. Unlike those two guys, who aim to be perfectionists much to their own detriment, Satyr had a decent enough reason to call time on his name sake band. Quite simply, he realized that he’d run the band’s sound as far as it would go, and was staring at a wall. It was time to go back to the drawing board and reconfigure the sound of Satyricon for the future.

 

The exciting part for us fans is that we really have no idea what this could mean. Few could predict the black n’ roll turn that these guys took with “Fuel For Hatred”, and really I’ve seen no one even take a stab in the dark at what the new stuff will sound like. The band is keeping mums the word as well, but we’ll all have some shreds of answers come late March when they take the stage at the Inferno Festival where its promised that they’ll debut several new songs live. I’m sure there are loads of people who have become disinterested in anything these guys have done since Rebel Extravaganza, despite their soaring popularity through the past decade. Again, like Darkthrone, I found myself enjoying black n’ roll Satyricon simply for what it was, in this case entertaining and catchy as hell metal. But if you were one of those disgruntled former fans, well here’s your chance to give the band another shot with a new album due this year that is expected to be the start of a new era of Satyricon.

 

 

 

5. Omnium Gatherum – Beyond:

These guys were a slow burn for me, as I took up an infatuation with Insomnium and Moonsorrow first and Omnium had to take the backseat for awhile. Choosing to ignore the odd subtext of that sentence, I’ll just move on and say that New World Shadows was my selling point on the band. What a great freaking album. I’ll have to admit that my listening experience with the band is so far limited only to the albums with Jukka Pelkonen on vocals, and I’ve no idea about anything done with the old singer. I’m okay with that right now, as I’m slowly becoming a Pelkonen fanboy. He might be one of the most versatile and expressive vocalists doing harsh/gutteral vocals in the metal scene as a whole. Musically not only does it feel like these guys are original in style and sound, but that originality extends to their songwriting as well, where standard pop structures are discarded in favor of more complex arrangements.

 

The new album, Beyond, will be the first of my most anticipated to be released this year, and the band have released a new song well ahead of the album’s expected release date of late February, and it can be heard here. It seems like the standard pre-album release cut strategy, issuing the most obviously catchy song first, but time will tell on that. I’m digging it, and it seems like they’ve gotten into more of the almost near power metal guitar sounds that they were exploring on New World Shadows. By the way, I wonder if anyone has passed a copy of that album to someone in In Flames? It’s seemingly the type of thing that those guys have been blindly trying to strive for with their recent clumsy, half-baked stabs at modernizing melodic death metal.

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Most Anticipated of 2012

Even though February is almost over, I’ve only just recently felt as if I’ve closed my book on metal in 2011. I suppose its always the way with me, it takes me a good bit of time to process all the year end lists on websites, blogs and magazines. I’ve spent most of the past few weeks playing catchup on stuff I missed, and haven’t give much attention to whats on the horizon. Really quickly, here’s some random thoughts on my five most anticipated metal releases/events of 2012:

 

Therion – TBA: I honestly didn’t expect this to be announced so soon after their last release, given that Therion do like to take their time with new albums, but perhaps something was urging Christofer Johnsson to shorten the wait time for the follow up – some internal nagging that was telling him what many Therion fans already knew, that 2010’s Sitra Ahra didn’t live up to expectations. The expectations were, at least from this fan’s point of view, that there would be an appropriately epic and breathtaking series of songs to conclude what had become a quadrilogy (with Sirius B, Lemuria, and Gothic Kabbalah). They were hitting home runs with those prior three albums, without exaggeration I consider all three to be some of the most wonderfully unique music I’ve ever listened to, in all genres, ever. So all my gross salivating over Sitra Ahra leading up to its release date quickly ran dry when I listened to the album for the first time.

 

One of the hallmarks of Therion has always been their ability to temper their extravagant, bombastic symphonic and progressive tendencies with restraint and elegance. Here it seemed, however, that Johnsson had lost his handle on whatever internal mechanism he’d always had that allowed him to say “Eh, thats overdoing it”, or “That sounds garish, even for us”. Guest vocalists delivered jarringly bad or ill fitting vocal takes that ruined potentially great songs, arrangements that in the past would be tempered by space or silence were instead overloaded to ruin. Not all was bad, the title track, “Unguentum Sabbati”, and the truly excellent “Kali Yuga III” were three songs that made me long for what could have been. So why have so much anticipation for this upcoming album from a band that just released an average at best album? The hope anyway, is that with the new album representing a clean slate, lineup wise as well as conceptually, Johnsson will feel comfortable in re-simplifying his approach and veering away from the apparent need to outdo each previous album’s bombast. Also, as fanboy-ish as it sounds, I don’t believe Therion can put out an average record twice in a row – they’re just that great overall.  The previous time they released an “average” record, they followed it up with a masterpiece in Theli. History repeats itself?

 

Burzum – Umskiptar: You have to hand it to Varg, he delivered the goods upon his release from incarceration with Belus and Fallen, both excellent albums. I was far more impressed with the latter and its strikingly unique approach on certain tracks. Who says Norwegian black metal is stale and uninspired? They must have not heard “Jeg Faller”, or “Valen”. The development of his signature sound was pushed to unexpected new directions, and Varg found out that he wasn’t adverse to vocal melodies either (!). My first listen to Fallen took me by complete surprise, it was like hearing the classic Burzum sound yet unlike it at the same time. A complete surprise in many respects. And this is why the recently announced Umskiptar is so high on my list of the most anticipated albums to be released this year (the jawdropping cover art doesn’t hurt either). In fact, the only thing that will top my surprise at hearing Fallen for the first time will be if Umskiptar doesn’t make my top ten of 2012.

 

 

 

Wintersun – Time: I know what you’re thinking, what makes me think that this will be the year that extreme metal’s own Chinese Democracy will finally be released? Call it a hunch, but enough time has passed already for Jari Mäenpää to get his technical situation sorted (I won’t go into the stupid details for those who don’t know them, only will pause to wonder why his record label, Nuclear Blast, won’t pony up a small check to pay for his hardware upgrade to finally help them get this damn thing released and recoup the budget?!). The reality at this point is that its a very fair question to ask if anyone will really care once it is released. Invariably it will be met with its fair share of criticism, the kind due any album that overstays its time in the oven and can’t meet the nigh insurmountable expectations its created. Its similarities to Axl Rose’s long delayed grandiose commercial bomb are eerily similar, an insanely multi-tracked production overseen by a perfectionist nutter, rumored problems with both the studios and equipment, and even Monty Python-esque train wreck humor in the form of noisy construction next door. I look forward to finally hearing the thing however, and I think 2012 is finally the year we’ll have the opportunity, if only for the fact that by May it will be six full years since production first began, and I don’t see Nuclear Blast willing to wait any longer than that. Admittedly, I’m far more interested in hearing Time simply because it has taken so long to complete, than I am because I’m some die hard Wintersun fan (how can you be a die hard fan of a band with just one album released in ’04?) If there actually are many others out there who are similarly curious, then perhaps both Wintersun and Nuclear Blast will find that it was worth all the time and trouble.

 

Iron Maiden’s “Maiden England” World Tour: On Saturday, August 18th, I will attend Iron Maiden’s final stop of the North American leg of their newly announced “Maiden England” world tour, a show which promises to echo its VHS namesake’s classic setlist as well as other songs from that era. In essence this is a sequel to the “Somewhere Back in Time” world tour of 2008, just advancing up the timeline of the band’s golden 80s era a bit. Well, I couldn’t be more thrilled. This is in fact my favorite band of all time, the kind of favorite band that underlines and anchors so many things I love about metal as a whole. Having another chance to see them before their soon impending retirement is not something that I take lightly — I’m very well aware that this could be the last time I get to see the mighty Maiden, and the fact that Houston gets the final tour date is all the more sweeter. When I first heard the news, it buoyed me for the rest of the workday and beyond, I felt giddy and wanted the show to be that night. I actually hadn’t listened to Maiden in a good many months but that day I went home and watched a few Maiden DVDs and had flashes of the rush I experienced upon seeing them live for the very first time. This is a purely self-centered addition to this list, but I think deep down, I’m anticipating this show more than any actual albums this year.

 

Darkthrone – TBA: I loved Circle the Wagons and quite frankly, can’t understand the animosity some fans feel towards the past few Darkthrone releases. Is it really all that far removed from the band’s 90’s pure black metal output? It still sounds like Darkthrone to me, albeit a bit more experimental in some areas (see “Circle the Wagons”, “These Treasures Will Never Befall You”) — and much to the chagrin of those who dislike the newer stuff, Fenriz has mentioned offhandedly that the newer material will echo the aforementioned songs. I view it as a welcome stylistic shift, I love those songs, as well as the rest of that record. I’ve checked my I-Tunes count play and see that its my most listened to album in their discography, even over Transilvanian Hunger. Haters be damned, I love new Darkthrone and hope they keep on the track of making the purists mad. I don’t always feel that way about a lot of bands but in this case, the songwriting seems to keep getting better as a result. Full speed ahead Gylve.

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